This is almost a first-rate film. It has an original script that’s in some respects very strong, with the construction of a good short story, but stumbles toward the close, ending with a shot of too-heavy irony. It showcases performances that are very nearly, but not quite, exceptional. It’s extremely well-made, with some sequences that are beautifully elliptical in what they reveal and conceal, but the visual technique just misses the target at several crucial points. All of which means that “First Snow” is at times fascinating but at others irritating. It’s both intriguing and frustrating, because it has so much going for it yet in the final analysis falls short of true excellence. It’s almost a superb movie, but winds up a barely recommendable one.
Lanky, sallow Guy Pearce, stars as Jimmy Starks, a seedy traveling salesman whose car breaks down at a remote New Mexico truckstop, giving him time to visit a fortune-teller (J.K. Simmons, in a solid, subtle turn) in a nearby RV. It takes the credulous Starks a return visit to get the truth out of the reluctant seer, but eventually he learns that the man has foreseen his imminent death—sometime around the season’s first snowfall.
As it happens, there are several threats to Jimmy’s wellbeing at the moment. One is a heart condition that a doctor informs him bears watching. The second involves a hot-headed young protege, Andy (sharp Rick Gonzales), who gets canned for padding his accounts in the fashion Jimmy taught him to do, and is furious when Jimmy tosses him aside. And the third has to do with a childhood friend, Vincent (Shea Whigham), whom Jimmy turned in to the cops after a scheme they went into together went sour; as a result, Jimmy escaped punishment but Vincent went to jail, and now he’s free and—just maybe—out for revenge.
Starks’s increasingly driven efforts to escape what he believes to be his fate alienate him from his boss, his closest salesman buddy (William Fichter, in a nicely “sensible-minded” turn) and his supportive girlfriend Dierdre (Piper Perabo, good if not outstanding). It also leads him to visit Vincent’s doddering but sharp mother (Jackie Burroughs, excellent) to glean information on her son’s whereabouts; to break into Vincent’s shabby apartment; and, ultimately, to a tense reunion with his old partner.
There’s much that’s engrossing in this noirish story, most notably Jimmy’s sessions with Simmons’ fortune-teller and Vincent’s mother. The sequence depicting Starks’s break-in of Vincent’s place is strong, too, and those pairing him with Fichter and Gonzalez aren’t far behind. But other parts of the movie aren’t as strong, including those between Jimmy and Dierdre, which never quite gel. And the final act, which mingles some redemptive steps by Jimmy with that meeting with Vincent (played too broadly by Whigham)—closing with a poorly-choreographed act of violence—as well as an abrupt turnabout ending of the sort that “The Twilight Zone” specialized in (but put across so quietly that some viewers will be bewildered by it), doesn’t match what preceded it, although it does have a haunting scene of Starks’s encounter with the season’s first snow.
And though Pearce works extremely hard, he never quite makes Jimmy come alive as a rounded figure. He gets the man’s desperation down, but doesn’t manage to bring as much shading to the character as one might like.
“First Snow” has plenty of atmosphere, thanks to Devorah Herbert’s production design and Eric Edwards’ stylish widescreen photography, which takes advantage of the alternately blistering and frosty locales. But in the end the moodiness can’t entirely compensate for the weaknesses of the last reels. This is a neo-noir picture that won’t entirely satisfy, but offers enough incidental pleasures to make it a moderately enjoyable trip to the dark side.